I was talking with a friend yesterday who is going through a very hard time, and of all the emotions that have come up during this struggle (anger, despair, etc.), shame has been the most challenging.
We all feel shame, and it’s perfectly OK to feel it. There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel shame—it’s a very human emotion.
Shame can tell us when we’ve done something that falls below our own standards for ourselves, and that can be important. But shame is easily misplaced and it isn’t very helpful in many situations. To deal with this misdirected shame, we can bring mindfulness to bear on the shame and practice letting it go.
Before we can let go, it’s worthwhile to mindfully work with our shame.
What Shame Shows Us
When I said shame isn’t very helpful, I didn’t tell the full truth. Actually, it’s very useful in showing us what we think about ourselves.
When we feel shame, it’s usually because we’ve done something that we think says something shameful about us. And so it shows us where we believe there is something wrong about us, something inadequate, ugly, or unworthy of love.
Of course, that belief is not true. But in order to let go of that ingrained belief, we have to see it first and be rational about what about us or what action has fed that feeling. Shame can show us where a belief lies hidden.
I’ll give some examples from my own life.
I’ve been overeating lately (an old habit of mine), which has led me to feel overweight and unattractive. This has brought up feelings of shame about my body and lack of discipline. The shame says that I believe I’m ugly and undisciplined, and therefore inadequate and unworthy of love.
I also went through a very busy period lately where I dropped all of my cherished habits for a few weeks, like exercise and meditation and accountability. This brought up shame for (again) not being disciplined, but also not practicing what I preach. The shame says that I believe I’m undisciplined, an imposter, inadequate.
I also felt a lot of shame when I fell into debt. This brought up the shame that showed my belief of being bad at finances, bad at taking care of my family, bad at being a father, and provider. And again, it revealed beliefs about my inadequacy and unworthiness of being loved.
In the end, the core belief is usually that we’re inadequate and unworthy of being loved. But the reason we believe this is that we believe we haven’t lived up to some expectation: being successful, being lean, being disciplined, being generous, being a contributor to society, being environmentally conscious, and so forth. The expectations are in our minds, but they were given to us by society’s messaging since birth.
While some of these expectations and beliefs are crucial to a harmonious and moral society, others are unnecessary or even fabricated by commercial interests. For example, it’s healthy to feel shame if we intentionally hurt others, but makes little sense to feel shame about not achieving unrealistic beauty standards.
Mindfully Working With the Beliefs That Cause Shame
It can be helpful to write down the beliefs that are causing us to feel shame, or to speak them aloud, perhaps to another person, such as a trusted friend or therapist. Getting them out of our heads helps us to get clear on them. And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself—saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power and maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.
So once we’ve said it out loud or written it down, let’s look at how to bring mindfulness practices into the equation:
Let yourself feel the shame.
We don’t often let ourselves actually feel this emotion because we don’t like it. Instead, open your heart and actually feel the shame in your body. Be curious about it: what does it feel like? Where is it located in your body? What temperature, texture, flavor does it have? See it with brand new eyes, with a beginner’s mind.
Ask yourself whether the belief is true.
If you believe you’re undisciplined, ask yourself, “Is it true that I’m undisciplined?” It might feel very true and solid, but in asking this question, let there be space for the possibility that it’s not true at all, or at least not completely true. Have you ever been a little disciplined? Are there examples you can point to where the belief wasn’t entirely true? Let the belief feel less solid.
See your basic goodness.
If at the heart of our shame is the belief that we’re somehow inadequate or not good enough, then it’s worthwhile to see that we are actually good. We have basic goodness at our core. Consider doing a meditation on your basic goodness and start to trust that this goodness is there all the time.
Give yourself compassion and love.
If you have a belief that you are unworthy of love, you can immediately disprove that by giving yourself love. First, practice the muscle of love and compassion by feeling it for someone else. Imagine someone you love dearly, and picture them having difficulty. Send them compassion, a genuine wish for their suffering to end, a genuine wish for their happiness. Feel what this feels like, and where it’s coming from in your heart. Next, try it for yourself: pour out the same feelings of love and compassion from the same place in your heart, but toward yourself. You’re suffering as well, and deserve your own love and compassion. Feel how it feels, and let this be proof that you’re worthy of love.
If you practice in this way, you might start to loosen your beliefs that cause shame, and let yourself feel trust in your basic goodness and worthiness of love. And if you do that, the shame might start to drift away, not needed any longer. What would you be left with if you didn’t have the shame?
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit Zen Habits.net